P-8A Roll Out to U.S. Navy Accelerates With ASW Mission

 - June 18, 2017, 6:50 AM
Mission system consoles in the cabin of the P-8A, which typically operates with a crew of nine, including three pilots. [Photo: Bill Carey]

Recently the recipient of a mischievous “greeting” by a Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter over the Black Sea, the Boeing P-8A Poseidon continues rolling out to the U.S. Navy, bringing new capability in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and no doubt annoying adversaries. Since it first started delivering Poseidons to the Navy in March 2012, Boeing this spring had handed over nearly half of the 117 jets the service seeks.

Prior to the Farnborough Airshow last year, Boeing (Chalets 332, 335) sponsored a press trip to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, where six U.S. east coast squadrons had completed the transition from the aging Lockheed P-3C Orion four-engine turboprop to the Poseidon, a Boeing 737-800ERX derivative with reinforced 737-900 wings. Last month, the press visited Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound north of Seattle, Washington. There, west coast squadrons are undergoing transition training.

From steamy Jacksonville to chilly Whidbey Island there was at least one familiar face—Capt. Andy Miller, officer in charge of P-8 fleet integration with Patrol Squadron Thirty (VP-30), a flight crew training unit, said he accepted the Navy’s offer to lead the P-3 to P-8 transition on both coasts.

VP-4, “The Skinny Dragons,” achieved safe-for-flight certification to operate the P-8A on May 5 at Whidbey Island, becoming the first U.S. west coast squadron to complete the transition. Formerly based at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, the squadron had received two of the seven Poseidons it will operate for a scheduled deployment next March. VP-47, “The Golden Swordsmen,” was next in line to complete the transition.

Jacksonville-based VP-16, the “War Eagles,” became the first operational P-8A squadron in December 2013 when it deployed with the jet to Kadena Air Base, Japan, to support the Navy’s 7th Fleet. By 2020, the Navy plans to base six P-8A squadrons at Jacksonville and six at Whidbey Island, Miller said.

Some P-3s will be assigned to training and reserve squadrons after 2020; others have been sent to the aircraft “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. There were 28 P-3s remaining at NAS Whidbey Island, plus a handful at Jacksonville, Navy officers said.

While most P-3 flight training took place on the aircraft, 70 percent of P-8A training is accomplished in a simulator, a major efficiency advantage, Navy officers said. There are 10 CAE-built full-flight simulators at Jacksonville and as of May three of seven planned simulators at Whidbey Island. Transitioning pilots fly 29 four-hour simulator sessions and 40 actual flight hours (50 for commanders), said LCDR Matt Olson assistant officer in charge of the Whidbey Island transition.

P-8A crewmembers described other enhancements the Poseidon brings to the ASW mission. The P-8A has storage capacity for 129 sonobuoys—50 percent more than the P-3 can carry—which are dispensed from rotary launchers in its aft section to detect and track submarines.

The Poseidon’s sensor mix includes SSQ-36 bathythermograph buoys (providing vertical seawater temperature profiles); GPS-enabled SSQ-53G passive and SSQ-62F active sonobuoys; and SSQ-101 multi-static non-coherent source and SSQ-125 multi-static coherent source sonobuoys. Its third generation Multi-Static Active Coherent (MAC) acoustic search system makes use of multiple receiver buoys in a multistatic field to support wide-area searches with greater sensitivity in a wider variety of ocean acoustic environments.

A planned upgrade, the Boeing-built High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Capability (HAAWC) air-launched accessory kit adds GPS guidance and folding wings to the Raytheon MK 54 torpedo, turning it into a glide weapon the Poseidon can release from has high as 30,000 feet; it will undergo flight testing this year. The P-8A cradles five MK 54 torpedoes or MK 82 depth charges in its belly weapons bay, plus AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles on four wing stations. “This is going to be great for our high-altitude ASW,” remarked Lieutenant Max Casillas, a VP-4 tactical coordinator.

The P-8A operates from a ceiling of 41,000 feet down to 200 feet above the water’s surface. “We’re not going as low as that because we don’t need to,” Olson said. “We’re down to 500, 1,000, 1,500 (feet), so we’re still low,” he added. “Because of the speeds, the turn rates (of the P-8) we’re still able to do all the same stuff as with the P-3. It’s good to go down there to show force, too.”

Boeing was under contract with the U.S. Navy for 91 P-8As and with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) for 12. The first two of nine Poseidons the UK plans to buy were contained in $2.2 billion Lot 8 full-rate production contract the Naval Air Systems Command awarded Boeing on March 30. As of that contract award, Boeing had delivered 53 Poseidons to the U.S. Navy and two to the RAAF.

Meanwhile, the Indian Navy had received eight P-8Is and was under contract for four additional aircraft. Boeing started delivering the P-8I with India-unique design features and indigenous subsystems in May 2013.

Among other pending users, Norway plans to buy five P-8As, for which Boeing awaited a foreign military sales contract from the Navy. New Zealand has expressed a need for up to four Poseidons, according to a Pentagon notification to the U.S. Congress in late April. Weeks after that, Saudi Arabia was revealed as a potential seventh P-8 customer when the White House announced a $110 billion arms package during a visit by President Donald Trump to Riyadh in May.